Food brings everyone together. No matter what your religion, nationality or heritage - people get together to eat. Cooking for family or friends is deeply personal, emotional and social. It creates memories. It anchors you to the important stuff - your heritage, history, childhood, culture, friendships.
And here's the thing - throwing together a big meal to feed a crowd doesn't have to be laborious, stressful or expensive. It's all about having fun and planning ahead.
I grew up in Israel, where great hospitality is everywhere (as is great food). It's an innate part of the culture and what most people regard as the standard. Israelis love eating out but they also love entertaining at home. Whether it's having your mates over on a Friday night for nibbles or throwing a decent barbecue (pretty much any time of year), food and socialising are part of everyday life.
Israelis call it 'opening a table' which basically means treating people to a generous, almost banquet-like feast where the guiding principle is WAY more food than anyone could possibly eat on one night.
It'd involve mostly light, fresh, bite sized fare. Anything from nibbly things like olives, cheese and nuts (mainly salted pistachios and peanuts) to savoury pastries filled with goats cheese, spinach or mushrooms to bite-sized sweet ricotta or chocolate pastries, crusty or flat breads and dips.
And there's also cakes, fresh fruit (watermelon, melon, mango or grapes), dry fruit, icy drinks and wine. You get the general idea. But it's all done in the spirit of generosity, celebrating good food and good company and extending a warm welcome to your guests. It's all about treating your guests to nice, fresh, local food bursting with natural flavours. Food is the focus and what makes the atmosphere alive and fun.
My grandparents used to have friends or family over almost every weekend. I used to help my grandmother set the table, freeze ice cubes, chop vegetables, season salads, fold napkins, polish the 'special occasion' silver and prepare desserts. We always used to cook up a storm together - whether it was gratins, stews, marmalades, strudels, caramelised nuts, chicken soup - it was always fun.
So to me, cooking for the people you love is a pleasure, not a chore. It's about celebrating good food, flavours, colours, scents and, most importantly, having fun and enjoying each other's company.
Here are 7 really simple, smart secrets to effortless, classy hospitality, mediterranean-style, whether you're throwing a Christmas dinner or a casual get together:
- Always have ice cubes in your freezer and lemon (or lime) in your fridge. Offer your guests refreshing mojitos, sophisticated G&Ts, a cooling minty lemonade or fruit flavoured water. Your guests will love you for it (especially on a hot summer's day) and it's so easy to do. Throw a lemon or lime slice into your water jug or sparkling water glasses and look like a REAL pro.
- Chill your wines, beers and sparkling water before your guests arrive. We tend to buy drinks but forget to properly chill them. There's nothing worse than a lukewarm beer or a tepid glass of white wine. Chill ahead and you'll impress your guests with ice cold beverages. And - this is important - don't forget to offer your guests a drink within 5 minutes of their arrival. It can be water, wine, tea, coffee or lemonade. In Mediterranean or Middle Eastern culture, not offering your guests a drink is a cardinal sin. It's such a simple and welcoming gesture. Don't let them wait till dinner is served. They're probably thirsty! Make one for yourself to put your guests at ease.
- Nibbles! In the Mediterranean, pre-dinner nibbles are almost as important (and can be as filling) as the main meal itself. It doesn't need to be anything overly complicated. Again, it's the gesture that matters. And if your main will take another 30 mins to cook, your hungry guests will appreciate something to snack on. Olives, nuts (pistachios, peanuts or cashews), humous (or other dips) or some cheese and crackers are easy peasy to whip up, look great on the table and make for great apperitivi. Think tapas sized plates and don't forget napkins!
- Delegate. Some of us can be control freaks (or perfectionists!) when it comes to the kitchen but I am a big fan of outsourcing some of the drinks, sides or desserts to guests. There's nothing wrong with someone bringing a dish, a bottle of wine or pudding. Delegation will free you up to focus on the mains (there's always plenty to do!). Just keep a list somewhere of who's bringing what to avoid confusion on the day.
- Think about the tableware. You may end up with not enough dessert plates, platters or trays when your usual ones are taken by nibbles or fruit. To avoid a last minute panic, plan the tableware ahead of time, draw a little of list of what plates will go with what dish and shop for what's missing a few days in advance. It'll save you a lot of stress on the day.
- Stock up the basics. Always have fresh fruit and vegetables in your fridge (like cherries, grapes, citrus fruit, eggplants, baby carrots) as well as quality olives, a couple of nice cheeses and roasted nuts (pistachios, cashews and peanuts). It's also handy to have some fresh crusty bread or premium crackers in your pantry. And a couple of spare bottles of wine. Even if people turn up on your doorstep, you could rustle up a quick sharing plate of cheese, bread and nibbles in no time.
- Buffet it! Yes, buffets are a thing of the 80s but they're making a come back. Done right, they can look great and free you up to mingle with your guests instead of waiting the table. Also, it's easier for people to socialise in a more casual setting. The key to a killer buffet is - of course - what's on it. If your food is first class, fresh and wholesome, there's no reason why it can't look a million bucks. One warning though - don't bring out desserts at the same time as the savoury mains as these don't belong on the same plate! Wait until everyone's done with the main, then clear the table and bring out the pudding, fruit and fresh drinks and coffee.
For more inspiration, check out our recipes page. It's jam packed with easy ideas that will make entertaining a breeze. Happy hosting!